Interview

How to choose a City law firm that won’t end your career when you have kids

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Ex-magic circle solicitor warns female legal wannabes not to follow the money — or even the most recent women partner promotion stats

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London’s coterie of global law firms has been proudly trumpeting over the last few weeks increased numbers of women partnership promotions — but one former City solicitor turned careers coach says many of the large practices are just talk.

Caroline Flanagan (pictured below) has lived the experience of trying to have a young family while retaining a career as a top-flight transactional lawyer — and it wasn’t a happy story.

Flanagan, who read history at Cambridge before doing the law conversion and Legal Practice Course at the then College of Law, trained at the London headquarters of magic circle player Allen & Overy and stayed on at the firm for three years after qualifying.

By the time Flanagan became unexpectedly pregnant 12 years ago, she had moved to a dream job in the finance department at the London office of Wall Street-based global giant Cleary Gottlieb.

Caroline

All went well through her six-month maternity leave. But on return to work, Flanagan agreed a part-time deal that was meant to provide her with the ability to combine career and family.

However, in the world of global law firms — or at least in the minds of the Cleary partners a dozen years ago — part time had an interesting definition. Flanagan’s deal involved working 9 to 5, five days a week, with evening availability required when necessary.

To most working stiffs that sounds like a full-time job with a spot of unpaid overtime thrown in for good measure. And for the privilege of agreeing the Cleary deal, Flanagan accepted a 20% pay cut.

“My advice to women, now,” says the 42-year-old, who went on to found Caroline Flanagan Coaching, “is be very careful of what you agree.”

“Continuing as a transactional lawyer is always a challenge with a flexible working arrangement. The view of law firm partnerships is that you cannot be on a transaction and work on the file only during fixed hours. The clients won’t stand for it.

“My arrangement started to unravel — 5pm became later and later, and I found myself doing much more and then asking for time in lieu, which didn’t go down very well.”

Ultimately, Flanagan left legal practice in 2005 with the niggling feeling that the firm at the time didn’t try hard enough to keep her.

“I left on good terms with my boss,” she says. “And I don’t want this to sound like a betrayal of the feminist movement, but I felt like I should have known better and should have been better prepared.”

Has the situation improved in the intervening decade? About a week ago, the Law Gazette reported that women accounted for nearly a third of the latest round of magic circle partnership promotions. That figure was slightly higher than last year’s — so, granddaughters of the suffragettes, crack open the bubbly.

Well, not quite, cautions Flanagan, whose coaching business is now routinely instructed by City firms to advise on how to retain female talent.

“The top law firms are investing in their leadership-track women — and it is expensive and time-consuming to do so,” she says. “But they are still seeing massive attrition at the lower level of between two and five years qualified, with the attrition rate significantly higher for women than it is for men. And that is happening despite some firms having their most recent intakes dominated by 60% women.”

Is the problem that many large law firms simply speak with forked tongues when it comes to work-life balance issues? Are they as sincere as Weil Gotshal, with its recent April Fool’s message that effectively held the concept up to ridicule?

“It depends on the law firm,” says Flangan diplomatically. “I’ve been very disillusioned by a couple that I had expected more from. They don’t seem to be willing to have open and honest conversations with their women lawyers.

“At the other extreme is a law firm that has panel discussions where it actively encourages people to be as open as possible and seems to want to change.”

According Flanagan, who now has four sons, the message to women is they don’t have to jack in their legal careers when they start families.

“If they are in a law firm that doesn’t care, they need to look around and move to a law firm that does care.”

Far more easily said, many at today’s women at sharp end of City legal practice will scream. But Flanagan — who is publishing a book later this year that is provisionally titled “From here to maternity: how to baby-proof your career before they come along” — is adamant that women lawyers have choices.

“They have to be smart about who they choose to work for,” she argues. “Don’t make a decision based only on which firms pay the most. Indeed, don’t make a decision based only on which firms are making up the most women partners.

“Make a decision based on having talked to as many people as possible so you can understand the real experience of working at various law firms. Not all legal careers are the same, so chose carefully.”

Caroline Flanagan can be found on Twitter at @Babyproof_Coach.

14 Comments

Not Amused

I think two issues arise.

The first is the ‘Dinah Rose’ point. Children do need looking after. It is not immediately clear why that job falls to a woman. Why not marry or choose a life partner who is willing to take over the domestic role? That way ambitious women can still succeed in exactly the same way that most ambitious men do. There should be absolutely no social stigma (either towards the men who choose to take the domestic role or to the ambitious woman) – and that is something we can all address by rooting out any prejudice we may feel.

The Second is that my experience of law firms is that the individual personality of the departmental head is more important than the actual firm. These people can and do change. So if you hear that a firm has a great reputation, you should still be extremely cautious because the actual head of your department may not be. Remember these are businesses in competition with each other and it isn’t always obvious that the burden should fall on the business (see point one).

(25)(3)

Quo Vadis

I often wonder whether the department heads that mistreat working parents have themselves neglected their family life, and are secretly resentful about it.

(12)(0)

Anonymous

It is a fair point that clients expect contact whenever necessary, but surely this can be achieved otherwise than the draconian means currently in place.

Time to properly embrace advances in technology?

(8)(0)

Anonymous

Absolutely there should be no stigma against men who choose to be a SAHP and women who choose to prioritise their careers. But it would be ideal if companies didn’t make individuals of either gender choose between a career and a caring role. There’s no sensible reason why a person should have to give up their career simply because they need to cut back their hours for a few years, and it’s the culture that forces them to do so that we should fight.

(9)(0)

Not Amused

I’m afraid it is wrong to say “there is no sensible reason”. It’s a bit like the slightly ill informed suggestion that lawyers need to ’embrace modern technology’ given that law led the way in early adoption of mobile e-mail and lawyers are available 24/7.

The sad fact is that clients demand that their lawyer is there. If you are not there then the client can and will pick another lawyer. It’s no good whining about that being unfair – most of us make our career by satisfying that client demand. You can’t simply then turn around and say “I no longer think you are entitled to have me 24/7 because that has become inconvenient”.

If you want work life balance then you go to a smaller, west-end firm. But if you do that then you take a pay cut – that is true of people without children. The quality of life firms make less money because lots of clients refuse to instruct quality of life lawyers.

We are all competing against each other. That’s good, it provides the best service for clients and it means we are all forced to become better and better lawyers. A child’s needs simply conflict with that demand. You can ‘lessen’ things by moving down to smaller, more laid back firms, but they take a pay cut anyway. Life earning the big bucks in a mega firm really is broadly incompatible with being a primary carer. It is at the Bar as well – when David Pannick’s wife died he chose (I think incredibly nobly) to put his career on hold for his family. The result of that was that suddenly Sumption was the ‘top silk’ getting the mega fees and special treatment to the supremes. People make sacrifices for family, or they marry someone supportive who makes sacrifices for them.

Sadly there really are no easy answers to childcare unless we have the state take it over completely. You can’t shift the burden to employers because the impact will be uneven and the market will make the ‘good’ firms fail.

(12)(1)

Tyrion

I agree with much of what you said. I think it is simply a case of priorities. Unfortunately law is a very competitive industry and people fall by at every step. Also there is no shortage of new recruits for these firms. So whilst firms should do everything they can to keep good lawyers on their books, unfortunately they are tied because there are literally a dozen people who would happily step in a sacrifice their lives for that role, and top firms know this.

You find with all successful people (in a career sense) that they sacrifice relationships with family and friends for their careers. If the sacrifice is no longer worth it, then you have to make a mature decision to prioritize your kids and life over billable hours. Its tough, but that’s the way it is. Perhaps take a job in-house where the hours are more predictable. There are lots of good small companies looking for lawyers who will pay great wedge and the hours are reasonable.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

A women shouldn’t have to search for a partner who wants stay at home with the children just so they can pursue a career. Men and women want careers and families, it is the law firms that need to find solutions and compromise.

(18)(4)

Not Amused

You live in a very simple world. If what you say is true then why do you think law firms haven’t already solved this problem?

(2)(6)

Anonymous

Maybe because its difficult to solve the promblem and remain competitive.

I just think in an ideal world an employee who works hard and is willing to compromise themselves should have more options available than to find a partner who wants to stay at home. Imagine both the man and woman in a relationship are career driven and ambitious, surely they should still be able to have a family.

(4)(0)

Not Amused

They are able to have a family. They can pay for 3rd party care or they can compromise their careers.

I think the far greater problem has been women on women guilt. In my own experience this has been colossal. Ambitious women need to stop feeling guilty for making sacrifices in order to be successful. This ridiculous image of the super woman who ‘has it all’ is a pernicious lie. There is no corresponding image of a super dad who ‘has it all’ for good reason – and that reason is not that dads do not love their children.

It is impossible to solve the problem and remain competitive. The market punishes anyone who tries. That means either we get the state to intervene or we change our expectations of women.

(4)(3)

Tyrion

I agree. Firms do not owe you a comfortable family life, they give you money and you provide a service. Lets not be naive about it. 24 year old NQs at some firms earn 100k, which is more than most people earn at the end of their careers. The exchange for that is your time. If you want a good home life, then leave and do other things. That is what being an adult is about, making tough decisions. There is no right or wrong answer.

And with regards to successful men, most at the top of competitive careers do not know their kids (generalization but you get my drift). Its impossible to be superwoman because superman does not exist. Many may say it, but the reality is that the kids will lose out on your time.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Sorry for stating the blindingly obvious, but surely the answer is to hire a nanny?

You earn top dollar working for a US law firm, so can afford a nanny.

You make a choice when you have babies whether you want to go part time or give up work altogether, or to keep aiming for the top professionally. The two choices aren’t compatible, as the spouse who goes part time will suffer at work due to the fact they are working less. Working less means more limited professional development, and fewer promotion opportunities.

So you choose to work less if you are happy with that, and it is no bad thing putting your kids first if that’s what you want. Or you choose to continue a career to the max and hire a nanny because you are able to afford that. Equally, this is no bad thing.

The alternative is to work for the government legal service or some other public sector setup that offers job shares and the ability to leave work by 4pm.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Did she pay Legal Cheek to plug her book and company?

After 10 years out of legal practice I am sure it will all be relevant and up-to-date advice…

(1)(4)

Caroline Flanagan

Ouch! I was happily enjoying the lively and relevant debate provoked by this article until your comment, Anonymous. If only, 10 years after leaving the legal business, my comments, experience and advice were no longer relevant.

(15)(0)

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